Stories Of Food, Love, And Donkeys From A Life Between Cultures. With a foreword by Dr Jane Goodall.
I am so glad Azzedine T Downes’ friends persuaded him to write a book about his travels, because this memoir is amazing! Funny and thoughtful, it’s a wonderful debut and hopefully the first of many more fascinating books about his life and philosophies.
The Couscous Chronicles covers Mr Downes’ adult life from when he was a Peace Corps officer suspected of being a spy for the CIA in Morocco, roughly to the end of his tenure with the agency. As a young teacher in 1980s Morocco, his blue eyes and prematurely greying hair caused much suspicion, as most of the people he met had a hard time believing that he was Muslim, American and decently proficient in Arabic. Soon enough, he was attracting the attention of many locals eager to betroth him, either to themselves or to their available relatives. While he was definitely amenable to having a marriage arranged by Islamic tradition, there were some catches that he was definitely uninterested in, leading him to eventually flee Morocco for the relative safety of post-graduate studies in Harvard. His career would eventually take him back to the Middle East as a newly married man. After his posting in Yemen, he was sent to Eastern Europe with his young family, before becoming the Peace Corps’ chief of operations in Jerusalem.
This fascinating book covers that entire time period in anecdotes that are often laugh out loud hilarious, just as often thoughtful, and always entertaining. The storytelling, which often elides certain details other memoirs would dive into, definitely wears a thin patina of nostalgia, as any retrospective on one’s own life would. One thing he’s very clear about not missing, tho, is being hampered by certain bureaucracy-loving desk jockeys of the United States government. Bad enough when their jealousy of his ability to navigate life on the ground in the Global South attempted to turn punitive. When their rigidity and ineptitude threatened to get his people killed, he realized that maybe working in a government agency was no longer the life for him.
And it isn’t just bureaucracy that he turns his critical eye to. Racism, sexism and xenophobia — no matter where their source — are all dealt with sharply, yet even-handedly, in this book. Mr Downes learned early on that differences between cultural expectations must be navigated in such a way as to ensure that more benefit than harm comes to all the people involved in the exchange. A strident declaration of how things should be is all well and good until one’s personal safety is at stake because of a refusal to understand danger. Staying calm but watchful often helps him figure out how to protect himself and his loved ones, a skill that becomes invaluable when he and they are thrust into life-threatening situations. Having a great sense of humor helps preserve mind and soul, in addition to body.
As an Asian American person who often doesn’t “look Muslim” and who’s had to navigate different cultures over the course of world travel myself, I greatly appreciated this artfully woven collection of tales. So many of his stories reflect my own experiences dealing with and deflecting the casual bigotry of others, as well as my joy in discovering the wondrous and new. This is a great book for anyone who believes in staying intellectually nimble and open-hearted. I loved it, and hope there will be many, many more memoirs to come from this remarkable author.
The Couscous Chronicles by Azzedine T. Downes was published June 27 2023 by Disruption Books and is available from all good booksellers, including